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May I use my neighbor’s Wi-Fi without permission?

 

There are laws in many countries that forbid the use of wireless service belonging to another without permission. In the United States, federal and state laws restrict “unauthorized access of a computer network,” though what constitutes unauthorized access and to what extent it is penalized varies greatly from state to state. But it is a punishable crime in every state to bypass encryption and other security measures for access.

Any action that is deemed illegal by the government is normally prohibited by halachah, as well. But if using an open network is acceptable in a specific locale, is it nonetheless considered gezeilah (theft)?

Gezeilah includes the issur (restriction) of shoel shelo mida’as (borrowing another’s possession without permission), even if the borrowed object is returned with nothing depleted and no obvious wear and tear. But a davar she’ein bo mamosh (something that has no substance) cannot be stolen in the strict sense of Torah law. By utilizing another’s internet connection there is no theft or even “borrowing” of a router or any other physical object, but there are other considerations of disadvantaging another which may restrict unsanctioned use.

Some of these issues are:

Is their bandwidth affected? Sometimes, multiple users can slow down a connection, especially when using WiFi for heavy downloads.

Do they pay per gig? Some internet providers supply a pay-for-use (also called metered) system and using another’s connection may add to their costs or suspend service when they “run out” and reach the gigabyte limit.

Do they have a single-user contract? Internet service contracts may have riders that limit the number of devices or users attached to a single account, and using a neighbor’s WiFi may cause them harm when their contract is thereby breached.

Is the internet activity above-board? Someone who freeloads WiFi for illegal transactions, downloads or viewing makes them more vulnerable to hackers and may even cause the contracted user to be penalized.

If we are sure that none of these issues apply—it is known that there is no outlay, authorization issues or slowed connection (or if the neighbor is away), there is a leniency of zeh neheneh v’zeh lo chaseir (one benefits and the other loses nothing). In cases involving a davar she’ein bo mamosh, the owner is obliged to allow usage: When playing loud music, the partier cannot prevent those outside from listening in; after painting a mural on the façade of a house, the homeowner must concede to passersby viewing it; and, ostensibly, a WiFi user’s open network (that is often automatically picked up by someone else’s wireless device) ought to be available for public use.

Additionally, since the primary user has the option of password protection, their failure to set it up may be implicit permission for others to use their WiFi. This dispensation is related specifically to internet access as an intangible acquisition (and would not apply, for instance, to taking another’s possession if their door is left unlocked).

The simplest solution for using a neighbor’s internet connection is simply to ask permission. If none of the above issues apply to their internet portal, neighbors who are approached in this manner are called upon to oblige, as the passuk in Mishlei urges: “Al timna tov meba’alov” (Do not withhold good from the one who needs it).

 

 

From Halacha2Go Archives
#702